Ever since Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s candidate lost the 2015 presidential elections that saw Mauricio Macri earn his four years in the Casa Rosada, pundits and analysts have tried to forecast Kirchnerism’s exact time of death. Most agreed the 2017 midterm elections that saw Cristina personally lose a Senate race against an unknown and second-tier candidate in the Buenos Aires Province — a legendary Peronist bastion — sounded the death-knell for the “movement” that erupted from the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz and took the nation by storm before dominating the political scene for more than decade. Macri’s Cambiemos coalition, later rebranded Juntos por el Cambio, saw themselves as the political force that would finally defeat Argentine populism, only to find themselves following in their footsteps to the point where an economic meltdown barred them from re-election, only to see Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner back in power, this time as the vice-president of a pan-Peronist coalition led by another second-tier figure, former Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández. Today, Kirchnerism remains the primus inter pares within the ruling Frente de Todos coalition, and despite having suffered multiple fatal setbacks, the movement has managed to remain a central actor of the Argentine political arena, maybe even the main protagonist. Hugely debilitated but still a commendable force, Cristina, her son Máximo and the rest of the clan have a crucial two years ahead of them, with huge repercussions for the country.
The question of Kirchnerism’s resilience pierces the socio-political-economic ecosystem in Argentina, and will help determine the near future of the beleaguered nation. Like every other country in the world, Argentina has had to battle the global Covid-19 pandemic, but also the drag of a decade-long decadent economic cycle marked by high-inflation and an increasingly weakened peso-dollar exchange rate. The spectre of the International Monetary Fund looms on the horizon, with a need to reach an agreement during the first quarter of 2022 if the Fernández-Fernández administration seeks to avoid a new sovereign debt default. Everybody – from the IMF to the Argentine political class – agrees that the country is unable to meet its debt obligations in the short-term and is far from generating “sustainable economic growth” (as embattled Economy Minister Martín Guzmán puts it) in the medium-to-long term. Most agree that restructuring the debt with the multilateral organisation controlled by the United States is a necessary but insufficient condition for future growth. And few are certain as to whether Kirchnerism is willing to accept austerity measures and structural reform expected from a new IMF programme.
Fernández de Kirchner has gone through a streak of wins and defeats in the past few years. Alberto Fernández’s 2019 presidential election victory over Macri was a strategic win for Cristina, who had surprised everyone by stepping down to the vice-presidency and unilaterally picking a “moderate” candidate who could rally the different Peronist factions behind the cause. Meanwhile, son Máximo has become a key player in the Frente de Todos coalition, leading the bloc in the lower house Chamber of Deputies, while corruption cases against her in the courts have moved in her favour. She still holds de facto veto power in government decisions, giving her a centrality in the political agenda above even the president. Yet, a series of electoral defeats – including the latest midterm elections – have put the opposition on equal legislative footing and internal tremors in the ruling coalition have limited her decision-making power, with the ever-sceptical traditional Peronists gaining ground. A united opposition — despite the emergence of fractures within Juntos por el Cambio — has positioned Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta as the main contender for the presidency in 2023, with several well-positioned internal competitors yearning for the candidacy.
While the opposition has kept the pressure on Fernández de Kirchner, President Alberto has remained a steadfast supporter, defusing an institutional implosion when Cristina ordered her cabinet members to tender their resignation after a smackdown in the PASO primaries. A schism within the Frente de Todos would result in a crisis of governability that could quickly push Kirchnerism to the extremes, resulting in a severe loss of power for Cristina and her followers, who are supposedly the most numerous within the pan-Peronist ruling coalition. A strong economic recovery over the next two years and an easing of the global Covid-19 pandemic could strengthen the Fernández-Fernández administration’s position ahead of the 2023 election, something that seems unlikely today. As for Kirchnerism, its final breath doesn’t seem to be in the cards anytime soon, even if it is to suffer a tough defeat in 2023. An apparent social yearning for moderation could ramp up the pressure though – and could force them to adapt or perish.